The No. 1 Duke Blue Devils (31-4) face their first real test in the NCAA tournament in the No. 5 Utah Utes in Friday night’s South Region semifinal at NRG Stadium in Houston. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s squad has dismantled opponents by an average of 24 points in their first two victories of the tournament, downing Robert Morris 85-56 and then routing San Diego State in the third round 68-49.
But the Utes (26-8) represent an entirely different animal. In their first tournament appearance since 2009, and first Sweet 16 in 10 years, head coach Larry Krystkowiak’s team may just have the firepower capable of equaling 1998’s Final Four run.
Utah, armed with All-Pac-12 first-teamer and senior guard Delon Wright, finished second in the stronger-than-expected conference and was one of the best shooting teams overall in the country, ranking 13th in field goal percentage at 48.5, and ninth in defense, allowing 56.9 points per game.
And in the first two rounds, Utah’s largely continued its consistent play. The Utes dropped Stephen F. Austin, 57-50, by winning the rebounding battle 26-18, and racking up seven total blocks, five of which came from top forward Jakob Poeltl.
Wright was held to 11 points, after averaging 14.9 a game during the regular season, but contributed six rebounds and three steals and attacked the rim to go 7-for-8 from the free throw line. Wright would put up a similar performance against No. 4 Georgetown in the third round, scoring 12 points and going 8-for-10 from the charity stripe, but junior guard Brandon Taylor would come through for the Utes.
Ranking second on the team in scoring, Taylor came up with one of his more complete game of the year with 14 points, five assists and a steal in the 75-64 win over the Hoyas.
Turnovers were the major issue for the Utes against Stephen F. Austin, committing 17 errors, six of which were charged to Wright, but they’d clean up their play and surrender only nine against Georgetown.
Holding on to the ball and thus making the most of each possession will be tantamount to the Utes success, especially against a Duke squad averaging 80.6 points and 50.2 percent shooting throughout the season.
The Blue Devils will go to big man and low-post savant Jahlil Okafor early and often, with the freshman hammering San Diego State for 26 points, six rebounds and three blocks, and Robert Morris for 21 points in his tournament debut.
Okafor, considered a potential top pick for this summer’s NBA Draft, also benefits from a solid backcourt led by freshman point guard Tyus Jones and senior Quinn Cook, with junior bigs Marshall Plumlee and Amile Jefferson providing some depth down low in the event of foul trouble.
Jones was second in the ACC with 5.8 assists per game, while Cook has been exceptional from three-point range this season, connecting on 40.7 percent of his attempts.
Start Time: 9:45 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Live Online Stream: A live online stream is available at the tournament’s official site here.
Betting Odds: Duke -6
Over/Under: 134 points
Prediction: Duke over Utah, 80-65